What My Students Said About Religion and Science


Meet Allama Iqbal: British knight, national poet of Pakistan, author of poetry in two languages (Persian and Urdu), author of philosophy in two languages (Persian and English), and the only major philosopher I know of who has an airport named after him.

Iqbal is an empiricist. Like William James (one of the visible influences on his thought), he strives for athorough and consistent empiricism. This effort leads him to a neat little analysis of both religious and scientific knowledge. Before moving on, let that point sink in for a moment: Here’s a major philosopher who thinks a proper understanding of experience justifiesboth religious and scientific … knowledge.

Sound weird? Well, it does go against a host of popular assumptions. But it’s not that weird – nor is the reality of both scientific and religious knowledge a very unusual idea among careful and consistent thinkers.

Iqbal gives us this idea in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, a very good book in which he attempts to integrate the insights of two intellectual traditions: modern science and religious mysticism — especially Sufism.

And Now It’s Time for a Story

The story will be told from my own fallible memories. But it’s a fairly accurate account of what happened.

So there I am in E-121 somewhere between 9 and 10 AM. I’ve just finished giving my students the gist of Iqbal’s argument for the legitimacy of both religious and scientific knowledge. I’d better review the argument for you. Knowledge, Iqbal says, is born of reflection based on experience. Two of the major varieties of knowledge are born of two major varieties of experience: scientific knowledge (born of reflection on sensory experience) and religious knowledge (born of reflection on religious experience). He says on these matters:

“The facts of religious experience are facts among other facts of human experience and, in the capacity of yielding knowledge by interpretation, one fact is as good as another.”

You can put this into an argument from the reality of scientific knowledge to the possibility of religious knowledge:

1. Science is a source of knowledge.

2. Science derives its warrant entirely from a combination of experience and reflection on experience.

3. So experience and reflection on experience is a source of knowledge.

4. There is such a thing as religious experience that can be reflected on.

5. So religious experience and reflection can also be a source of knowledge.

And Now, My Students Object!

Now my students begin to question Iqbal. Here are a few of the objections and replies (not word-for-word, but in words meant to capture the heart of the matter). My replies are, more or less, given on behalf of Iqbal because, today at least, I work for Iqbal – as on another day I work for Aquinas, Confucius, or Nietzsche.

Objection: But scientific knowledge can be subjected to tests, and religious beliefs can’t!

Reply on behalf of Iqbal: Says who? I don’t think Iqbal says that. What makes you think there is no such thing as a religious hypothesis that can be tested? For example, you might be able to confirm someone else’s religious experience by having your ownreligious experience.

Objection: But religion is based on subjective experiences, and science isn’t!

Iqbal International

Reply on behalf of Iqbal: Science relies on the experiences of various individuals. Those experiences are relayed from an individual scientist to everyone else by testimony. In this respect religion is exactly the same as science.

Objection: But religious thought is much harder to verify than scientific theories!

Reply on behalf of Iqbal: Maybe so. But so what? Iqbal’s analysis doesn’t depend on the ease of verification, or even the method of verification. Maybe it is harder to test a religious belief. Maybe not. (And maybe it varies by religion, and varies from belief to belief in both religion and science.) Maybe religious belief is less reliable than scientific belief, but that doesn’t affect Iqbal’s analysis either way.

Objection: But science is about matter, and religion and ethics are not. So they aren’t about anything real.

Reply on behalf of Iqbal: Are you sure about that? Remember what I told you about Plato and Pythagoras! Since triangles are composed of perfectly straight line segments without width, they can’t be made of matter, and you can’t see them. But you’re pretty sure you know what they are, and since you don’t know what doesn’t exist triangles must exist, and they must be non-physical realities known through the mind rather than through sensory experience. So maybe non-physical reality is just as real as physical.

Objection: But scientific thought is concrete, and religion is abstract, and concrete reality is so much easier to know.

Reply on behalf of Iqbal: Consider those beliefs that are necessary to learn anything about the world from experience but which cannot be known from experience, like the validity of inductive reasoning or the reality of the world outside the mind! Science depends on knowledge of them. But try explaining how we know them without being abstract. If you’re going to object to abstract knowledge, you’re probably going to have to object to science if you want to be consistent!

Objection: But what about the conflicts between the evidence of religious experience and the scientific evidence?

Reply on behalf of Iqbal: What about the conflicts between scientific evidence and scientific evidence? These conflicts come up all the time, and scientists manage them on a case-by-case basis, choosing one theory over another based on what evidence is more solid or what interpretation of the evidence is better. There are also conflicts betweenreligious experience and religious experience, and religious believers have to deal with them in the same way. Well, it’s the same with conflicts between religious and sensory experience: If a scientific theory clashes with a religious view, you have to evaluate the experiences and the interpretation of them. In such a conflict, the best combination of solid evidence and good interpretation of the evidence wins! So, you see, this objection counts against science no less than against religion; rather, it counts against neither.

Objection: But moral beliefs are relative because in different cultures people have thought different things about morality.

Reply on behalf of Iqbal: Your unstated premise is that whatever different cultures think differently about is not objectively true. Different cultures have thought different things about astronomy. Does that mean that there is no objective truth about whether the earth orbits the sun? If this is a criterion for truth, science is condemned as relative along with religion!

Objection: But scientific knowledge is so much more systematic than morality!

Reply on behalf of Iqbal: Not necessarily. You may think this is necessarily so, but you are mistaken. It’s a good thing you’re taking this class, because later we’ll talk about Kant and Aristotle and Mill! Their analysis of morality is more systematic than science!

(By the way, I may have been mistaken in that last point. Is science, as a whole, less systematic than Aristotle and Mill? Maybe. I’m not sure. It’s definitely less systematic than Kant. Everything is less systematic than Kant.)

I suspect many of my students were all along motivated largely by the tension between evolution and traditional monotheisms — perhaps thinking incorrectly that evolution is a test for rationality. And now, with very little time left before class dismisses at 9:50, one of my students finally asks about evolution directly.

Objection: But what about evolution?????

Reply on behalf of Iqbal: In a clash between scientific and religious beliefs, you evaluate the evidence on which the beliefs are based, and you evaluate the interpretation of the evidence. In this particular case, Iqbal thinks the view that God created the earth in a manner inconsistent with evolution is based on a poor interpretation of the evidence from the Quran, which he happens to read non-literally in this case. So Iqbal is a theistic evolutionist.

And my final remarks, as time in class is running out, are something like this: I’m not saying that religious and scientific knowledge are entirely alike in degree of certainty or in method of verification. I’m not saying they are exactly the same kind or same quality of knowledge. And I’m not saying there aren’t good objections to Iqbal’s view of religious knowledge. But let’s be sure to offer good objections that don’t undermine science while we’re trying to promote it!


The End of This Essay At Last

Many of these objections were old territory for me, for I long ago put them into the mouth of the Grey Robot.

I do concur with Iqbal in this particular argument – though not necessarily in all the material related to the argument in his very good book.

But my goal was not to convince my students to agree with Iqbal. My main goals were to get them thinking, challenge a presupposition richly deserving to be challenged, and introduce them to a neat philosopher.

This was Intro to Philosophy; I’m sure my upper-level students would have given some better objections if they’d tried. For that matter, some of the lines of thinking in the Intro course, had they pressed on with them, might have led to a serious concern with Iqbal. (And I might well have not had any answers.)

Still, it’s amazing how often poor objections and double standards are used against the rationality or knowability of religious beliefs. Well spoken were those words of William James:

“Of some things we feel that we are certain: we know, and we know that we do know. There is something that gives a click inside of us, a bell that strikes twelve, when the hands of our mental clock have swept the dial and meet over the meridian hour. The greatest empiricists among us are only empiricists on reflection: when left to their instincts, they dogmatize like infallible popes.”

This post first appeared on Ricochet.com, and has been modified very slightly to appear on TTC.  My next post will look at one aspect of this matter a bit more systematically. Specifically: How is religious belief to be verified or falsified?

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